11/11/2013 08:29 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Index Cards, Typewriters, Trollope, and Mac: Honoring Old School

My dissertation director was old school. A Princeton graduate, he refused to answer to "Dr. Bulgin," insisting on "Mr. Bulgin" instead. Similarly, he never addressed his students by their first names, so I had to get used to the awkwardly formal "Miss Huggins." But to those of us lucky enough to be his graduate students, he was just Mac. "Got Mac this semester?" "Yep, Dickens seminar. Here come the index cards again."

Mac's small, dusty office fascinated me. It always smelled faintly of pipe tobacco, although I never knew Mac to smoke in his office. Still, the scent permeated his old tweed jackets and the piles of books stacked everywhere. In a back corner, sitting on the floor, was a large cardboard box that served as yet another place to stack up books. One day I asked him what was in the box, which had obviously never been opened. "My computer," he answered dismissively. "They insisted on buying one for me, but they can't make me use it. It's been there for three years." Mac couldn't find his way around the keyboard of a manual typewriter, let alone a computer. He was one of the few faculty members--if not the only one--who still asked the department secretary to do his typing for him. Even the letter of recommendation that he put together for me, when I went on the job market, was handwritten.

One of Mac's favorite topics, particularly when he had a very dry martini at hand, was how higher education had changed--for the worse, of course. He completed his Princeton doctorate in Victorian literature in the early '50s, having barely avoided service in World War II by a year or two. Mac loved to tell the story of how he spent one entire summer holed up in his sweltering dorm room at Princeton, reading Anthony Trollope. And although he graciously tolerated my fascination with the Brontës, he never missed an opportunity to opine on how George Eliot was really and truly a better novelist than Emily Brontë. (He was wrong, by the way.)

By the time I met Mac in 1990, higher education was leaving him behind. He bitterly lamented the poorly prepared students, the fact that many of them had to take classes part-time while also working or raising children, and the decline of student interest in education for its own sake. I can still see him leaning back in his ratty old desk chair, feet propped up on the corner of his desk, looking for all the world like a Dickens character trying to blindly grope his way through the deconstruction, feminist theory, and cultural studies of graduate literary work. He used to tell me that I would never be truly well educated until I developed a passion for classical music, fully understood Carlyle, and learned to speak German. Alas.

One of Mac's most prized possessions was his set of frayed, yellowing, handwritten 4-by-6 index cards--literally hundreds of them, carefully divided by author, genre, and chronology. Mac's method of preparing for a lecture--which was basically the only way that he taught--was simply to locate the appropriate set of index cards, bring them to class, and proceed to read them to us from behind an old wooden lectern in a deep, slightly gravelly voice. We hung on to his every word; he didn't ramble and he was never boring. I would have sacrificed my first-born child to get my hands on those index cards. They represented to me the most valuable nuggets of Mac's knowledge and wisdom, refined and distilled over five decades of teaching. I have often wondered what happened to them when he retired.

Mine was the last dissertation that Mac Bulgin directed. He hooded me at a commencement ceremony in December 1997, retired into relative obscurity, and died just a few years later. I miss him still. When I retire, I will spend an entire summer reading Trollope. Maybe even George Eliot, although that might require me to learn to smoke a pipe.

Thank you, Mr. Bulgin.